Football Outsiders Almanac 2012: Tennessee Titans Preview

Nate Dunlevy@NateDunlevyGuest ColumnistJuly 25, 2012

Will Johnson run hard or hardly run?
Will Johnson run hard or hardly run?Brett Davis-US PRESSWIRE

Every year, there are dozens of NFL preview publications unleashed upon the world.

There is one, and only one, that is a must-buy every single time.

The Football Outsiders Almanac is a book you have to own.

Whether you want the best team capsules out there, reams of stats and charting observations, fantasy data, college football data or just access to some of the best and most groundbreaking statistical studies you can find, FOA 2012 needs to be on your shelf.

The Football Outsiders is the No. 1 site fans must visit if they want to consider themselves educated. FOA is the best way to get all that knowledge in one easy-to-read chunk.

Rivers McCown is helping me break down the Outsiders' findings about the AFC South. Up next is the Tennessee Titans.

The Titans continue to be one of the most inscrutable teams in the NFL. It's difficult to project a team without knowing who the starting quarterback will be, but even if we did know if Jake Locker or Matt Hasselbeck were playing Week 1, the Titans would still likely be a crapshoot.

McCown, who also writes for the Battle Red Blog, helps us dig into those numbers.


B/R: Chris Johnson projects as roughly the same back he was last year. His profile suggests there's at least a chance that his best days are behind him. Is this what he is now? Mediocre? 

McCown: The whole theme of Tennessee's FOA chapter is "I don't really know what to make of this team," and Johnson is basically the fulcrum point of that. I think anyone who closely watched him on tape last year knows that, to some extent, he was dogging it. The situation around him was not ideal, the team happily offered excuse after excuse for him, but the fact of the matter is that he just didn't run that hard.

If Johnson cares, his speed and elusiveness are going to be big assets in this wide-open scheme that Tennessee is building. Let me toss last year aside for a second: he wasn't terrific in 2010 either. He had great traditional stats, but just a -7.5% DVOA, which put him 33rd in the league.

I think, if you're an optimist, a scenario where Johnson is able to be an above-average back by DVOA is not out of the question. Those chances decrease a little bit if Kenny Britt misses significant time, but I think the Titans are on the right track to rejuvenating his value.

The funny part of that is that, as he turns 27 this year, he's right about at the point where we should start expecting decline from backs. If it sounds like I'm indecisive about Johnson's future, it's because I think he could be anything from a key cog on a playoff team this year to a candidate to be let go next offseason.

I hate to dip into the sports cliche bin, but this is going to be all about how bad Chris Johnson wants to be a star.

My guess is that Johnson bounces back to his 2010 form and plays reasonably well, but not worthy of the enormous contract he received last offseason. That will put Titans brass to the test come the 2013 offseason, because it's one thing to pay a premium for a star back, it's another to pay a premium for a non-star back. 


B/R: So the Titans could be anything from terrible to a playoff team. What's your gut feel? 

McCown: My gut feeling is that this team will go as far as Kenny Britt can carry them. Right now, with the arrest and the lingering injury, it's not looking too good.

In the games he played last season, he was completely dominant against a couple of pretty good pass defenses in Baltimore and Jacksonville. I know that this is a lot of promise to put on a guy based on two games, but I think a healthy and focused Britt is capable of being an Andre Johnson-caliber receiver in this league, and how often he stays on the field is going to go a long way for Tennessee's bottom line in the win column.

Beyond Britt, I have a lot of optimism about the passing attack this team can field between Kendall Wright, Jared Cook, and Nate Washington. Even if they insert Jake Locker and watch him continue to complete a low percentage of his passes, that's a frightening receiver set to deal with.

Wright against slot corners could be completely devastating. Wright against No. 1 corners, as a rookie? That I'm not so sure about. Thus, my emphasis on just how important Britt is to their chances of competing.

If I had to hazard a guess right now, I think Tennessee is a seven-win team. I'm anticipating some missed Britt time in there. If Britt plays 16 games, I think it is reasonable to expect them to fight the Texans for the division crown. 


B/R: Where is this team going to find a pass rush? Do you buy that they can 'manufacture' one? I'm not sure I see the raw materials there. 

McCown: I'm incredibly suspicious of the idea that they'll be able to find one. Kamerion Wimbley, as we noted in the chapter, is an incredibly inconsistent pass-rusher who tends to shoot a lot of his seasonal production out in two or three games a season. He's a stab at correcting the problem, but not a complete answer.

Meanwhile, Bud Adams fell all over himself trying to get Peyton Manning in baby blue instead of chasing Mario Williams, who seemingly lingered in Buffalo for a week before relenting to the Bills and would have filled a much bigger position of need for the Titans. Probably not an optimal offseason strategy there.

Now we're talking about Akeem Ayers dropping down as a nickel pass-rusher? I think Ayers can grow into something better than he was last year, but I'm guessing he'll be handled with relative ease by tackles. 

I am really trying my hardest to let Tennessee sell this to me, but I just don't think much is going to change. Derrick Morgan is going to have to become an impact pass-rusher for this team to really threaten opposing quarterbacks, and he's given zero indication so far that he can be one.

The first-round bust lists are littered with defensive ends that had a major injury and lost that little bit of a step that made them great. Maybe Morgan bucks that trend, but I'm going to need more than a few anecdotal "he's no longer the main focus" ideas mixed with Keith Milliard's wishful thinking before I buy it.


Many thanks to McCown, who helped out recently with full previews of all the teams in the South. Make sure to buy your copy of FOA 2012 today.